What should I do when my dog gets spooked?

Yellow labrador puppy with worried expression on his face.
This worried puppy might need comforting, or he might need you to let him know there’s no reason to be afraid.

A reader asks:

People say you should ignore your dog when they get spooked by something, the reason being that if you comfort them, they will think that, since you are comforting them, there must really be something to be afraid of, or else you wouldn’t be comforting them. Are dogs capable of that kind of thought? What should I do if my dog gets spooked?

This is a great question, and if you ask a dozen dog trainers, you are likely to get about a dozen different responses. Here’s what I would suggest.

First of all, I do think that dogs are capable of the kind of abstract thought that you describe. Thousands of years of living and working together have taught dogs to pay close attention to humans’ responses to things and to our emotions.

So what to do when a dog shows fear or apprehension … That depends. No, I am not avoiding answering the question. But it depends on the dog’s age and on the trigger for the fear response.

When I trained service dog puppies, a huge part of the training was getting them out in public and exposing them to various stimuli. One thing I was looking for was whether a puppy showed fear and if so, to what. I carefully selected destinations, and with the youngest puppies (8-10 weeks old), I only took them in groups with volunteer handlers. We — the volunteers and I — also exposed them to lots of things in the puppy “nursery.” We’d put on hats and Halloween wigs or masks, play weird noises, show them movies, run the vacuum cleaner, open umbrellas, play with skateboards, walkers, bikes, toy cars, Christmas decorations … you name it, it showed up in the nursery at some point.

In these cases, the stimuli were things that a dog might encounter in everyday life and that there was no reason to fear. If a puppy spooked, we’d react cheerfully, going up to the scary thing and touching it or interacting with it in some way that made it engaging to the puppy. For a skateboard, for example, I might hold it still and pat it invitingly, offering a really good treat. I’d make sure to expose that puppy to the skateboard in positive ways several times before allowing him to see a moving skateboard again. For a statue (a common spook-inducer), I’d go up to the statue and touch it, make happy sounds, offer treats, etc. The idea was to show that this was not something to fear. Most puppies will approach after a startle response, especially if their human lets them know it is safe.

For an older dog who spooks at an everyday item, maybe a statue or a plastic bag blowing in the wind, I would ignore the fear response or respond with a cheerful voice, saying something like, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Let’s go!” and carry on walking. This is for the reason you describe; comforting the dog might reinforce his idea that this thing is really scary; you don’t want to encourage this fear response to ordinary things.

On the other hand, what if the dog’s response is to something that might be threatening?

There are different categories here. One is things or, more likely, people, who might be threatening to the dog or to you. If I’m walking with my dog and she has a negative response to an approaching stranger, I pay attention. Jana, whom I still miss every day, was a fantastic judge of people. If she took a dislike to someone, we got away. I would never question her judgment. Cali is a more typical golden. She loves everyone. I don’t necessarily trust her judgment. But if she spooked, I would definitely pay attention.

But those are rare incidents. What’s more likely is a dog’s fearful or anxious reaction to something that might or might not be threatening to him but is not threatening to you. And for these things, the response really does depend on the context. A few examples:

  • You’re at a dog park and a new dog comes in. The dog is rambunctious and high-energy. You don’t know this dog, and your dog seems nervous. There’s no reason to reinforce the fear or panic, but use common sense. The dog park should be fun for your dog, and if he’s nervous and afraid, he’s not having fun. This might be a good time to cheerfully tell him, “Time to go!” Without reinforcing or even reacting to the fear, just leash the dog and leave.
  • If you’re not quick enough and the new dog gets in your dog’s face, even if he’s only trying to play but is overwhelming for your dog, your response is different. Your dog needs to know that you’ve got his back. You have to be your dog’s advocate and protector, and this example is exactly when he needs you to step up. Again, the other dog might not be doing anything wrong, but dogs have different play styles. Cali finds large, exuberant dogs frightening. There’s no reason she has to play with them. I just get her out of there. Again, though, you are not comforting the dog or justifying his fear. You are respecting his preferences.
  • Your dog is afraid of thunder or fireworks. These are common triggers. In these cases, I wouldn’t make a huge show of comforting the dog, but I would make sure to provide a safe space for him to ride out the storm. A dog who’s afraid of thunder? Give your dog a den in an interior space — a crate can work or a cozy corner of a room with no exterior walls. Some dogs just want to cuddle until it’s over; that’s fine. Try not to leave the dog home alone when scary things are likely, and always make sure the dog cannot escape. A dog who bolts in fear and cannot escape the noise might run for miles and can get lost, injured, or killed.
    If the dog’s reaction is extreme, try supplements or even medications that can ease anxiety. I’ve used small amounts of melatonin (3 mg. for a large dog; be careful to get melatonin without xylitol) or DAP, dog-appeasing pheromone, in a diffuser. Different things work for different dogs, so experiment a bit with over-the-counter remedies like these or Rescue Remedy, etc. Consult a vet if the dog is extremely agitated; some vets will prescribe anti-anxiety drugs. For me, this is a last resort, but some dogs are so terrified by thunder and/or fireworks that it really is the kindest approach.
  • Your dog has a fearful (and possibly aggressive, which is related to fear) response to some people. It might be all men or delivery people or anyone who approaches your front door. You might not be able to figure out which people the dog will react badly to. If this is the fear trigger, call a trainer who specializes in working with fearful dogs and who uses positive training methods. This is not the time to double down on “showing the dog who’s boss” or any other common training nonsense. A professional, positive trainer will help you teach the dog that these people are not to be feared; the trainer will also teach you how to manage these situations until your dog is more comfortable. Be aware that, with some dogs, situation management will always be needed. If your dog finds children scary, again, this is a situation for a trainer and a lot of management from you.

This might be more information than you expected! But the bottom line is that it matters whether the dog is a puppy or an adult, and whether what’s triggering the response is a normal, everyday, non-scary item or something that really might be threatening. Above all, be compassionate. You are your dog’s advocate and protector. If he’s really scared, comfort him. If he’s in a situation that he feels is threatening or overwhelming, get him out of it. Let him know that he can trust you to take care of him. Then figure out whether this is a situation where you can teach him not to be afraid, where you have to manage the situation, or whether you need a trainer’s help.

Is He Really “Just Playing”?

Are they playing or fighting?
Are they playing or fighting?

My dog-human communication students recently discussed a study on how well people interpret dog body language. The study, published in 2009, compared the descriptions of dog professionals, dog owners, and people with no dog experience. They all watched the same nine videos that showed a range of behaviors, most interestingly aggression and actual play.

The study’s authors wanted to know whether the amount of dog experience a person had improved his or her skills at reading dogs’ body language. They showed the video clips to observers from four different groups: veterinarians, professional trainers, dog owners, and people with no dog experience. The dog professionals and owners had at least two years of hands-on dog experience.

After watching each clip, observers were to identify the predominant behavior, choosing from a list of eight adjectives. They were then asked to justify their choice: What about the dog’s body language suggests this behavior?

How’d they do?

Not well. Professional trainers (other than the ones participating in the study) and behaviorists have their work cut out for them.

Surprisingly, the dog professionals did no better than the people with no dog experience at identifying the dogs’ body language.

  • The scariest result was that a third of the observers saw aggressive behavior as playful.
  • A sad result was that 43 percent saw actual play as aggression.

Too many people can’t tell when a dog is playing and when the dog is being (or working up to becoming) aggressive. That’s often why people get bitten.

The observers’ descriptions of the body language they relied on to identify behavior are revealing. For example:

  • Most descriptions focused on tail movement, mouthing or vocalizing, and large, whole-body movements.
  • Nearly all tail movement was described as “wagging” and it was always identified as playful.
  • Nearly all barking was seen as aggressive and growling as defensive.
  • The only clip where a dog’s teeth could be seen was the active play video, but two-thirds of the observers who mentioned it saw it as aggression.

That’s another reason behind dog bites, especially the ones where people say “it came out of nowhere.” They look only at big, dramatic body movement and assume that barking or tail movement has only one purpose. They miss or misinterpret the more subtle body language and vocalizations.

If our dogs ever interact with other dogs, with children, even with unfamiliar adults, we need to be able to intervene if the dog is stressed or scared, remove the dog if he or another dog is showing stress, aggression, or fear, and generally pay attention to how our dogs react to different situations. This enables us to keep — and the people and dogs who interact with them — safe.

To do this, we have to look at the whole dog. A wagging tail might mean the dog is happy or wants to play — or it could indicate that he is stressed or unsure of the situation. Raised hackles might be defensive or aggressive — or could simply indicate arousal, which is more likely the case in an actively playing dog.

Not knowing this and not noticing the more subtle movements — a raised lip, ears pulled back, a stress smile — is how people miss the early signs that a situation is overwhelming or frightening to a dog, that the dog is losing patience or getting close to a literal “snapping point.”

When it’s our own dogs, the more often we watch and notice, the better we’ll get at putting together a “big picture” understanding of our dogs’ body language and of the messages they are sending us.

(Oh — those dogs in the photo? Playing. How can you tell? There are many cues: Hackles are not raised, eyes are soft, ears are loose and not pinned back, tails are low and not stiff, both dogs are showing similar energy (one is not going after the other), lips are not pulled back from teeth.)